By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News
The proposed plan to build new prisons in Alabama would also allow the purchase of the empty, privately owned prison in Perry County to hold parole violators who are crowding some county jails around the state.
“(The Perry County Correctional Facility) has always been the Rubik’s Cube of the prison problem that no one’s ever been really able to figure out,” Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Parole Director Cam Ward told Alabama Daily News.
Built in the 2000s, Ward said it’s a good 730-bed facility but its remote location and distance from medical care has been a challenge to operations. At one point, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement used the space.
“But it’s never been used to capacity,” Ward said.
Ward and other state leaders will meet with GEO Group, the private prison company that owns the site, this week, about the possible purchase.
Ward was in the Alabama House in 2010 when the Legislature considered buying the property for $60 million. Ward said he expects the sale price now to be “considerably less.” The draft bill, which lawmakers will consider in a special session starting next week, allows the state to buy or rent it, but Ward said his preference is that the state own and run it.
He estimates it would initially cost $1.2 million to $2.5 million per year to staff the site for about 75 to 100 inmates. He said it would take a few years to grow to about 700 inmates and include more educational and training opportunities. The site could be ready for inmates in nine to 10 months, he said.
Finding a use for the site has been a priority for Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro.
He said Pardons and Paroles’ plan for the site could cut recidivism rates for the state by getting parolees treatment and skills and keep them out of prisons where they become more criminalized.
Ward’s proposal revolves around “dips and dunks,” former ADOC inmates who were released on parole but got a technical violation, such as failing a drug test or missing an appointment with their parole officer.
Under a 2015 state law meant to lessen prison crowding, “dips” were to spend two or three days in a local jail. After a few dips, they become “dunks” and were supposed to serve 45 days in an ADOC prison. But county officials have complained that’s not how its working and the inmates end up staying in local jails, taking up space and resources.
Ward’s proposal would put those “dunks” at Perry County instead of crowded county jails.
“And while they’re there, we provide mental health and substance abuse treatment for them, and they have to complete it successfully and if they do, they go back to being on parole,” Ward said. “If they don’t, then they go to prison.”
He also imagines some mental health treatment and soft skills training to help inmates stay out of prison.
In the spring, lawmakers approved legislation to put those dunks in a few jails that volunteered to house them for a fee beginning Jan. 1. 2022. The bill requires a jail application and selection process involving ADOC, the Alabama Sheriffs Association and Association of County Commissions of Alabama. Association executive director Sonny Brasfield, last week said that the application process hasn’t begun.
“We are supportive of using the Perry County facility and have been for years,” Brasfield said. “And using it for folks who would otherwise be in county jails is obviously something we are going to be supportive of.”
In July, there were 3,032 state inmates in county jails, more than 1,000 of them awaiting transfer to ADOC prisons.
The ACCA recently approved a resolution requesting $10 million in backpay because inmates were kept in jails when ADOC reduced prisoner intakes because of COVID.
Eventually, Ward said he’d like to partner with the Alabama Community College System to provide job and workforce training and what he said will be a minimum-security facility.
“If they get treatment, hopefully they won’t come back to prison again,” he said. “I think that’s the primary mission of our agency — what do we do to make sure a person doesn’t commit another crime or go back to prison. I think this is the kind of facility that can do that.”
Acquiring Perry County is part of the larger draft bill to allow for the construction of two men’s prisons and one women’s prison. A third men’s facility could be added under a third phase a few years from now. The bill allows the state to borrow up to $785 million for the construction of the two men’s prisons in phase I. Meanwhile, the use of about $400 million in federal COVID relief funds could help move dirt by early next year.
Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Range, the Senate General Fund budget chairman, last week said Legislative leadership is still doing some homework on the bill, including trying to shore up Democrats’ support.
Albritton said there are already several items in the bill that Democrats pushed for, including the new women’s prison and the closure of the existing Julia Tutwiler prison.
The bill also adds four seats to the bond-issuing Alabama Corrections Institution Finance Authority, including an appointee picked by the House and Senate minority leaders.
Draft language says it’s the Legislature’s intent that the “authority encourage participation by minority businesses in the construction of prison facilities” and come up with a plan to do so.
Singleton late last week said his caucus doesn’t yet have a position on the bill, but members are reviewing it. He said he’s heard from a few who want more rehabilitation and education programs within the prisons.
“We need to make sure once they (are released), they can be job ready, or have the potential to be job ready, and not just put out with $10 and a bus ticket.”
Singleton said he personally is OK with the concepts in the bill.
“I understand the need to build prisons,” he said. “I understand that we have men and women living in horrible, inhumane, overcrowded conditions in the state of Alabama. And we have to do something better than what we’re doing, the culture inside the prison system. We’ve got murders and sexual assaults going on, as has been pointed out by the federal government.”